Three-star chef opens snazzy sandwich shop

January 28, 2011 9:25:34 PM PST
Some chefs achieve stardom over a period of many years in the kitchen, but for one local chef, the big break came last year, hosting the president's birthday dinner.

After that and a series of high-profile TV and music festival appearances, three-star chef Graham Elliot now has a new project is underway.

Graham Elliot is the name of that hip, modern restaurant where the president dined with Oprah.

Its namesake has gone on to oversee the food service at Lollapalooza, serve as a co-host on the TV show "Master Chef," and more recently, open a sandwich shop in River North while tweeting all about it. Some people are wondering if he might be spreading the brand too thin.

Graham Elliot's next act, however, is much more casual. His most recent project is all about the sandwich, at the ever-so-humble Grahamwich.

"We've got this fine-dining place, it's really cool and loud, but how do we get to a larger audience. How do you play -- instead of a club of 20 people -- like a stadium? So we thought, everyone speaks sandwich, how do we do something that's a play on that?" said Elliot.

Every sandwich has its own personality -- and starchy vehicle for holding it together. In the case of the Shortrib, beefy cubes are jammed into pretzel bread, drizzled with creamy horseradish and topped with fresh baby watercress and pickled shallots; a mound of shoestring potatoes makes it a challenge to eat.

The turkey confit is Thanksgiving between Amazonian dinner rolls: pulled, moist turkey is stacked with candied yams, stewed cranberries and greens, accented with a subtle hint of sage mayo.

As for the smoked whitefish, think of a sweet, raisin chutney spread on a kind of Indian naan; then mix up that whitefish with a curry aioli or mayo. A colorful palette of carrots, parsley and raisins gives the sandwich some crunch, as do salted almonds.

"Being in the Midwest, we wanted to do something with whitefish. So we took that smokey whitefish flavor and kinda really tried to make something delicious, and it's the only sandwich we have here that's served open-faced, so you see all of the goodies together," Elliot said.

The banh mi isn't going to convert the fanatics on Argyle Street -- the French baguette isn't nearly as good as the stuff from BaLe or Nhu Lan -- but this up-market version contains generous hunks of pork belly that are contrasted by sweet, roasted pineapple; a slaw of daikon radish gives it some bite.

There are also snacks here, like Elliot's famous parmesan-and-truffle oil popcorn, plus a pair of soft serves for dessert, like tart greek yogurt with pomegranate and dark chocolate, or heavenly cinnamon stick, embedded with roasted apples, salted caramel and bits of pie crust.

Elliot says he's just trying to take the humble sandwich and give it a three-star chef's interpretation.

"I think it's something you're going to see more of chefs trying to say, you know, 'I'm not above this kind of food -- how do I make it just as delicious but more my style?'" Elliot said.

This hasn't been a good week for Elliot. Both Time Out Chicago and the Chicago Reader eviscerated the sandwich shop with scathing reviews. I'd like to be more optimistic, seeing that its only been open a month. But you might want to wait awhile before heading in, just so they can regroup. I have a feeling he'll be doing less tweeting and more tweaking in the weeks ahead.

615 N. State St.
Sandwiches are $10 each, cash only, limit four.